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Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Nature of True Virtue

Jonathan Edwards nailed it.

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Atheists and agnostics most frequently voice two related arguments when challenged on the issue of morality and virtue.  First they assert that they are moral and don’t need religion to tell them what to do.  Second, they assert that morality has nothing to do with religion; it’s simply a matter of “the culture.”

This is rather like saying that your automobile engine runs just fine on the gasoline in the tank and that oil refineries, oil drilling, and the processes of nature that formed petroleum have nothing to do with your auto engine, and you have no need of them.

Last evening I found myself in conversation with an amiable and intelligent gentleman.  When the conversation turned to the elevation of the new Pope Benedict XVI, he suddenly exploded into profanity.  His vehemence, it became clear, was directed at religion in general, to which he attributed the origins and sustenance of the world’s evils. 

To carry the analogy further, this is akin to blaming traffic accidents on the existence of petroleum deposits beneath the earth’s surface.  Jews and Christians, at least, never have said that religion would perfect humanity.  They say, rather that all humans are both good and evil.  Spiritual religion does its best to make the good predominate, but inevitably it fails with some people entirely and with most people to some degree. 

Citing horrific misjudgments such as the Spanish Inquisition only proves the point that humans can be either good or evil.  It does not prove that religion is evil nor that religion causes evil, even when evil things are done in the name of religion.  Secular materialists would not say, for example, that they have no need for law enforcement or that the legal system is unscientific ignorance because some people still commit crimes, or because some police officers or judges are corrupt.  The good done by spiritual religion enormously outweighs all misguided evil done in its name, as well as the derelictions of hypocrites proclaiming themselves to be morally guided by religion.

In the course of his outburst, my friendly conversationalist emphatically declared that, though he is an atheist, he is just as moral as anyone else and has no need of religion to instruct him in moral principles.

Where and how had he learned his principles of morality, I inquired.  Was he born and raised in a dark closet, where he studied matters and independently derived his code of morality, inscribing it on his mental tabula rasa?  Did he make up his principles of morality from scratch?

Well, no, it turns out.  His father was raised in a Christian family, but became aware that religion was a matter suitable only for profane dismissal.  He then grudgingly admitted that perhaps he had gained his ideas about morality from his father, who gained his in turn from being reared in a Christian family.

Getting a second wind, however, he then attempted to evade that admission by attributing all morality to “the culture” of society.  That, of course, is a hoary argument from the secular materialism of anthropology.  But it’s a circular argument at best, or worse, a refusal to acknowledge that things must always have a beginning, an origin.  From nothing comes nothing.

“The culture” leaves unanswered whence came the culture.  It also skirts one of the valid points noted by anthropologists that there are different standards in different cultures.  The world endured unspeakable atrocities to learn that a culture cut loose from the self-restraints of morality, without the boundaries of a higher law emanating from God, easily produces the secular and materialistic regimes of Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s National Socialist Germany.

It should therefore be obvious to everyone, including my amiable conversational companion, that “the culture” is no answer to the need for morality.  A good culture, in fact, originates in God’s higher law of morality.  In that regard, see The Moral Free Rider Problem and Who Are the Moral Free Riders?

Atheists and agnostics seem unwilling to confront the facts of history.  When someone asserts that he doesn’t need anyone, or any religion, to provide moral guidance, he is implicitly saying that every man is a law unto himself.  This, of course, is a position with very ancient pedigree, reaching at least as far back as the Greek sophist Protagoras who denounced the concept of independent standards of morality and declared that man is the measure of all things, each person is at liberty to make up his own standards and rules of conduct.

If an atheist or agnostic truly believes that every person should be free from the constraints of spiritual morality, then he has no rational defense against the thug who puts a pistol to his head and steals his property.  The thug is simply exercising the atheist’s asserted right to make up his own rules.  The end point of the atheist’s and agnostic’s conception of strictly personal morality is the nihilism depicted in Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov.”  Vanya, seduced by the intellectual novelty of nihilism declares that there are no rules of conduct, that each person has the right to make up his own rules.  After his father is murdered, he realizes that his bloviating had provided to his half-brother the rationalization for their father’s murder.

What then is the genesis of morality?  And what was Jonathan Edwards’s answer to the question?

Jonathan Edwards was a Congregationalist (Puritan) minister in Massachusetts in the early 1700s.  He died in 1758, shortly after appointment to the presidency of the college that became Princeton University.  Edwards was both a powerful preacher of the Calvinistic Protestant doctrine and early America’s most outstanding theologian and moral philosopher. 

His widely disseminated sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is by many credited as the impetus for the Great Awakening of spiritual religion, which began in 1734 in Edwards’s village of Northampton, Massachusetts, and spread eventually throughout all of the British North American colonies.  Politically the Great Awakening was the forerunner of Samuel Adam’s committees of correspondence that brought the colonies together in the first Continental Congress. 

Before the Great Awakening, no public figure was known in all the colonies and the colonies had no significant degree of common interests that all recognized.  Protestant Christianity was, from the very beginning, the single common, unifying element among the colonies.  And, as Adams, Jefferson, and almost all the founders avowed, our War of Independence was won with Divine guidance and founded in natural law based on Christian religion.

In a slender volume titled “The Nature of True Virtue,” which Edwards wrote in 1755, he stated his philosophical analysis of what constitutes true virtue. Wishing the argument to apply to both believers and non-believers, he couches it in philosophical terms with almost no reference to specific Biblical scripture.

Edwards says that moral judgments of good and bad originate in our sentiments, not in reason alone.  Following in Plato’s footsteps, he identifies the good with a kind of beauty, which is by nature attractive to humans.  Virtue is the beauty of the heart, of the human soul.  Virtue’s highest expression is in love, not love of self, but of the object of love, and the highest object of love is the totality of being itself, the entirety of the universe, which in turn is an expression of the Mind of God the Creator.  Hence, the highest virtue is the greatest degree of love for God.

That love of God is expressed as moral conduct in our dealings with animate and inanimate parts of the world.  Morals are not some neat list of exact rules that apply to every situation.  Humans are directed by God rather to soften their hearts with His love and to let that love give them intuitions about the moral and just way to deal with life’s situations.  Of course, many of those intuitions become codified in statute law.  Indeed all the world’s law codes cite Divinity as the source of their authority, beginning with Hammurabi’s Babylonian law code in roughly 1900 BC.

Statute law must be modified from time to time when God’s love leads us to soften our hearts still further and to condemn social practices, some of them thousands of years old, as immoral.  One such prominent example was the nearly simultaneous movements in England and the United States in the 1820s.  Under the impetus in this country of Protestant clergy during the Second Great Awakening of spiritual religion, and in England under the impetus of the Methodists and Quakers, the movement to abolish slavery began and eventually triumphed.  Neither atheists, agnostics, nor socialists played even a minor role in this great expression of spiritual morality.


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